Collapsing Civilizations

clineCenturies after the destruction of Troy, its mighty walls still stood, eight meters high. Its sanctuaries and well house were recognizable. It is easy to imagine how the shepherds on the plain were impressed and told stories about the ancient city. Once, there had been a terrible war, they will have said, and the warriors had been people of superhuman strength. Not even those heroes, however, could have built the walls: they were not made by men but by gods.

Gods, heroes, and century-old ruins: that was all that a poet like Homer knew about Bronze Age Troy, the background of his Iliad. Other bards sung about Knossos, Mycenae, and Thebes, and in their poems we can also recognize echoes from the fourteenth and thirteenth century BCE. Echoes, only echoes: the poems were largely fictitious. The Aegean Bronze Age civilization was almost completely forgotten.

Worse happened to the equally old civilization of the Hittites, who lived in Central Anatolia: it vanished without a trace. Except for a handful of names in the Bible, which would lead one to believe that the Hittites were one of the clans living in Judah or Israel, there was not a single reference to them in the ancient sources. Nothing could have prepared historians and archaeologists for the discovery that the Hittites had existed. Big, very big, was the surprise when the existence of the ancient superpower was, about a century ago, revealed.

By then, research to Bronze Age Troy, Mycenae, Egypt, and Assyria/Babylonia had already started. In the twentieth century, Crete, Cyprus, the port of Ugarit and the Hittites followed. In the last half a century, archaeologists discovered how these civilizations were intertwined. Mycenaean painters worked in Egypt and Egypt exported grain to the Hittites. We can read the letters of the kings, who conducted war, concluded peace, opened up trade routes, and married to each other’s daughters.

The world of the Bronze Age is the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century. A millennium and a half were added to known history, let’s say from 2700 to 1200 BCE. Fifteen centuries that had been altogether forgotten – the collapse at the end of this period had been complete. Greek castles were abandoned, the Hittite Empire disintegrated, the cities of the Levant were destroyed, and Egypt only narrowly kept its independence.

History offers a few other examples of collapsing systems; the most famous is, of course, the demise of the western provinces in the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE. Much has been written about this subject and it is not exaggerated to say that “collapse literature” is historical genre of its own. Almost always, the cause of the disaster is identical to a problem that was acute in the days of the author. American archaeologist Eric H. Cline cannot avoid this problem completely in his 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, in which he describes the collapse of the Bronze Age societies in the eastern Mediterranean, but his book is certainly worth reading.

In the first chapters, which deal with the centuries preceding the collapse, Cline offers an account of the world that was about to disappear. For the disaster itself, he presents several causes, which, each in its own way, destabilized the system. It is a fact that there was a series of earthquakes, which continued until the tectonic plates had found new, stable positions. There are also indications for long droughts, which suggests a climate change. The evidence for this has, since Cline sent his manuscript to the printer, been strengthened (more). In the Aegean world and in Anatolia, there were political disturbances and groups of people started to wander. These emigrants followed the old trade routes, which remained in use until the very end, and caused the unrest to spread to other regions. Pharaoh Ramesses III had to wage war against these “Sea People” in 1177 BCE. Of these wandering warriors, the Philistines are best known.

Another contributing factor may have been that the governments lost power and were no longer able to coordinate interregional trade. The consequent rise of free entrepreneurship was an aspect of, and contributed to, the loss of stability. Cline is a bit skeptical, but offers this theory in such a way that the reader can draw his own conclusions.

What is cause, what is consequence of all these related developments? In itself, none of these factors was sufficient to cause the catastrophe, but the situation became complex because the economies of Egypt, the Hittites, Mycenae and so on had become so intertwined that a change in one country inevitably caused instability in all parts of the system. When such a “hyper-coherent system” – Cline borrows the expression from complexity studies – starts spiralling downwards, the collapse can be complete, because nothing remains unaffected and stays standing stable.

As I said, in “collapse literature”, the end of a civilization is usually caused by a factor that has a certain relevance in the days of the author. Cline’s reconstruction fits the general picture: the risks of globalization are a modern problem, which he recognizes in the past. This is inevitable. When we study ancient history, we never have sufficient data, so we can only recognize things that resemble things of our own age. It was unavoidable that Cline’s Bronze Age shares characteristics with our own age, and if we accept this, we can only conclude that Cline has written one of this year’s most interesting books.

6 Responses to Collapsing Civilizations

  1. pithom says:

    The question remains why some of the countries of the Sea Peoples themselves (e.g., Sicily and Sardinia) did not collapse.

  2. Yes, but this assumes that the Shekelesh and the Sherden are indeed from Sicily and Sardinia. The thought is indeed tempting but I remain a bit skeptical.

  3. Sean Manning says:

    Weren’t societies in Sicily and Sardinia very different from those in the chariot kingdoms further east? The devastation concentrated on the urbanized states of the eastern Mediterranean.

    I am glad to hear that this is a good book. I heard a talk about the latest excavations at Hattusus a few weeks ago.

  4. You will like it, Sean, although I guess that you already know most of it.

  5. Sean Manning says:

    I actually have not read much about the Late Bronze Age catastrophe recently, but I enjoy learning about the period. One side benefit of learning Sumerian and Akkadian for my Achaemenid research is that one day I will be able to read some of the primary sources from the Amarna Age!

  6. Eric H. Cline, 177 BC. The Year Civilization Collapsed, Princeton/Oxford 2014, 172: “However, it is convenient, and considered acceptable academic shorthand, to link the invasion of Odoacer and the Ostragoths in AD 476 with the end of Rome’s glory days.” Mmm. Its seems prudent and good academic practice to check your facts when making comparisons with historical periods outside the sphere of your expertise. Apparently, however, in this case time was lacking even to correct elementary slips such as equating “nearly 150 years ago” with the “mid- to late eighteenth century” and dating the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen to 1992 and 1922 (both on p. 63). Still, a useful and reasonably entertaining synthesis.

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